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Metro Pulse The K2Kronicles

K2K gets Knoxvillians -- and Knoxville's politicians--directly involved in the political process.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

MAY 8, 2000:  Leslie Terry remembers it clearly. It was at the January meeting of Knox County Commission, during the 15 minutes or so of hand-shaking, jabber-jawing, and back-patting that traditionally precedes the commencement of official business. Terry, a polite woman with chestnut hair and an unthreatening smile, had made her way onto the dais to sign up as a speaker during the public forum section of the meeting. The list is kept near the seat of Commission Chairman Leo Cooper, a former high school principal who retains the bearing of a blustery disciplinarian. As Terry approached, Cooper was thumping his hand on a thick white binder.

"This is the most interesting book in Knox County right now," Cooper was saying. Terry, who was attending her first commission meeting, said, "Yes, it is. Where do I sign up to speak?"

Although Cooper almost certainly didn't know it, Terry's name was one of more than 100 that appeared frequently in the pages of the book before him. The cover showed an architectural sketch of the county's long-planned justice center and jail, beneath a rectangular logo that read, "K2K."

By the time the night's meeting ended, that three-character phrase had been uttered dozens of times by commissioners, public forum speakers, and political gossipers in the audience. Terry had presented petitions with more than 3,000 signatures calling for a temporary halt to the jail project, and commissioners—to the surprise of just about everyone, including themselves—had voted to do just that.

The politics behind the decision were typically opaque, but there's little doubt the media attention trained on the jail in the weeks prior to the meeting was a major factor. And much of that attention was a product of K2K—a fledgling Internet discussion group whose correspondence on the justice center had been compiled in the anonymously distributed white binder produced to discredit the group.

Now marking its six-month anniversary, with a steady subscriber base of 300 people, K2K is something new—not just to Knoxville, but to the whole realm of civic (if not always civil) discourse. Its long-term impact remains to be seen. But the passionate, hydra-headed, endlessly evolving conversation that makes up K2K seems like a sample of things to come, a local glimpse at politics and public debate in the weird wired future.

"It really is indicative of a whole new mode of political dialogue, and it's really worth watching," says Bill Lyons, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee and a K2K subscriber.


Birth of a Notion

Buzz Goss and his wife, Cherie Piercy-Goss, are sitting at a table in the temporary home of Tomato Head restaurant on Market Square, along with Leslie Terry and Steve Dupree. The quartet represents the authoritative voice of K2K, to the extent that such a thing exists. The Gosses, partners in an architectural firm, were the founders and first moderators of the discussion group; Terry, a professional singer and voice instructor, and Dupree, an actor/engineer/motorcycle enthusiast, are the current moderators. They're sitting inside to escape the country-western karaoke and corndog fumes of the Dogwood Arts Festival, which currently occupies the square. The location is significant—the square, the festival, and Tomato Head itself have all been topics at one time or another on K2K. But then, there aren't many things in downtown Knoxville and its environs that haven't been.

"The Internet's all about connectivity, and this is what has been lacking in local politics in particular, but probably politics in general," Dupree says, awaiting delivery of a large chef's salad. "Frequently, we feel like 'We're the only ones that care' or 'We're the only ones that would do anything if there was an opportunity for us, there's no one else out there that's going to help us,' yadda yadda yadda. What this does is allow us to see at a quick glance that there are other people who would like to see something done, who would be willing to work towards a goal if you can be part of a team rather than Don Quixote out there tilting at windmills."

When K2K started, even windmill-tilting was outside the scope of its ambitions.

"We certainly didn't think it was going to have this kind of impact in the beginning," Cherie Piercy-Goss says. "We just wanted to have a way of getting together to talk about these issues."

"The whole thing really started out of a debate," Buzz Goss says. He and some friends, including UT graduate student Regina Rizzi, were drinking beer on the patio of an Old City bar last summer. Goss, who has been redeveloping old buildings downtown for several years and participated in various efforts to energize the central city, was feeling sour about the unresponsiveness of local power structures.

"I was saying, you know, it's a horrible system and there's no need to even try to get involved in it," he says. "And [Regina] was saying, well, you have no right to complain about it if you're not going to try to get in and change it. She kind of called me on my bullshit."

Over the next few months, Goss polled acquaintances with similar interests and found that many wanted to get more involved in local issues, particularly the future of downtown Knoxville. Most of them were computer users and comfortable with email. The Gosses were already part of a circle of friends who stayed in touch through a website called eGroups.com, which lets anybody set up a discussion group about any topic they want for free. Subscribers to the group share each others' emails and can respond instantly. They can also access all the messages posted in the forum through the eGroups site.

"It makes it easier to meet," Goss says. "Basically, you have an ongoing meeting."

In October, a trial run started with about 30 people. Response was favorable, but the group lacked something Goss thought was important—a good name. A few weeks later, again over drinks ("It's always beer," Goss laughs), Scott Scheinbaum, a musician and co-founder of the now-defunct Cyberflix, came up with a winner: K2K.

"It seemed so logical to me," Goss says. "In my mind, it wasn't Knoxville 2000, it was Knoxville in the 21st century."

EGroups is an expansion of an old concept, or old by Internet standards anyway. In the medium's early years, listservs and newsgroups formed to connect people with specific professional or personal interests. That remains the dominant format—a scan through the eGroups site finds forums on everything from sports teams to pornography, but nothing resembling the wide-ranging Socratic dialogues of K2K. Goss says he's searched the Internet for something analogous but has yet to find it.

A Metro Pulse forum on downtown development in early November seemed like a logical launching point for the project. The Gosses and others handed out business cards with the subscription address. Within three days, there were nearly 50 members, and the dialogue was off and running. The initial group consisted mostly of people who knew each other either professionally and socially, who lived and/or worked downtown, and who tended to cluster at the Great Southern Brewing Company on Gay Street (until its recent closure, the brewpub was K2K's de facto real-world headquarters). But there was one major exception: Mayor Victor Ashe.


The Mayor Joins In

To the surprise of many K2Kers, and the consternation of some, the mayor engaged quickly and enthusiastically in the discussions, revealing himself as a near-compulsive emailer. His posts to the group, often written before 6 a.m., have continued unabated and now probably number in the hundreds. He even accepted an invitation to host a "Mayor's Night Out" at the brewpub in January. Ashe is unapologetically partisan in his usually short, pointed missives, defending the city when it comes under criticism and often attacking political adversaries like Sheriff Tim Hutchison.

"It's interesting," Ashe says of the forum. "I think they've played a role in stirring debate among a certain segment of the community. I participate because it gives a chance to outline some of my views in more depth."

It also gives Ashe, and the rest of the participants, the peculiar mix of spontaneity, distance, and informality that is unique to email. As the medium has redefined interpersonal communication, throwing out most of the old rules of "business letters" and even grammar taught in high school English classes, it has encouraged an almost stream of consciousness approach to dialogue. K2K posts tend to be full of sentence fragments and off-the-cuff observations. Ashe doesn't even use capital letters, prompting one wag to dub him the e.e. cummings of K2K.

Ashe's sometimes prickly rebuttals to criticism don't necessarily present him in the best light. City Councilwoman Carlene Malone, who says she doesn't subscribe partly because she's afraid of going off half-cocked herself, says, "I would compliment the mayor for being on there. If I was his PR advisor, I would tell him to get off immediately. I think there are times [he] has shown a bully response."

"I don't know that I've been wounded," Ashe demurs. "I enjoy the give and take."

If unfiltered communication—between private citizens, politicians, experts in various fields, and the media (including the Metro Pulse staff)—is one of the things that distinguishes it, another is its immediacy. Several news items have appeared on K2K days before showing up elsewhere. TDOT's plans to widen the Henley Street bridge, for example, were detailed by some K2K posts before Ashe himself had even heard about them. And when Terry attended the city's budget hearing, she wrote a post that provided far more detailed coverage than any of the subsequent media accounts—and beat all of them by hours.

Initial concerns about whether to "allow" public officials onto the forum abated quickly. Goss insisted the group be open to all comers; he maintains that it is not a "group" at all, but an ongoing discussion without leaders or specific objectives beyond talking about downtown. (The moderators log in new subscribers and track the group's progress, but are largely invisible.) And the organizers are untroubled by Ashe or anyone else pushing their own agendas. "I don't care how my elected officials get my opinion, as long as they get it," Dupree says.

Openness has its consequences; there tend to be four or five major topics under discussion at any time, and keeping track of all of them—and the hundreds of emailed opinions, references, links, and reading lists they generate—can be daunting.

But it also served as a useful rebuttal during K2K's first real encounter with local politics, which Goss, in a rhetorical flourish, describes as "that brief moment we set the world on fire."


The Jail and Beyond

Among the dozen or so early topics to generate discussion on K2K, one took root forcefully: the new downtown jail. Demolition of buildings along State Street had just gotten under way, and even downtowners who hadn't been following the decade-long debate over the jail and courts complex were suddenly aware of something big happening in their backyard.

They were spurred on by Assistant District Attorney General John Gill, whose boss, Randy Nichols, had started raising questions a few months earlier about the need for new jail space.

Gill's posts regarding the justice center, citing controversial facts and figures about jail cell capacity, maximum security vs. minimum security populations, and constructions costs, helped galvanize others on the forum to launch a petition drive and media campaign. One of the most active K2Kers early on, stockbroker Robert Loest, even took out a half-page ad in the Knoxville News-Sentinel against the jail. By the time the January commission meeting rolled around, the petitions numbered in the thousands and K2K's membership had topped 160. County Commissioner John Schmid, a justice center skeptic, was one of them.

"It's a great example of the new technological information age," says Schmid, who still subscribes but has been almost dormant as a participant since January. "This is replacing the old town hall. There's just so much more easy access to information."

But defenders of the jail plans were also prepared. The night before the meeting, the 13 county commissioners most sympathetic to the sheriff and his desired new facility received white binders hand-delivered to their homes. (The other six commissioners, including Schmid, received the binders shortly before the meeting.) All of them professed ignorance of the binders' origin. But their content, hundreds of K2K posts arranged under chapter headings—the posts of Ashe, Gill, and Schmid each received their own chapters—seemed like an effort to portray jail opponents as participants in an ill-mannered cabal. Some commissioners even professed to be shocked at the content. (The binders' introductory page ominously warned, "Due to the use of profane language, the reader is cautioned to keep these materials inaccessible to minors.")

Whatever the intent of the binders, it apparently wasn't achieved. After hours of discussion, commissioners accepted the sheriff's withdrawal as construction supervisor on the jail, gave it back to the oversight of County Executive Tommy Schumpert, and put a hold on further activity pending new recommendations and a public hearing. The attendant media coverage, much of which mentioned K2K, pushed the forum's membership to 230 within a week. A few days after the meeting, Dwight Van de Vate, Hutchison's chief deputy and spokesperson, acknowledged compiling and distributing the binders. He maintained he just wanted commissioners to be apprised of the group and its discussions, although he neither explained nor apologized for his initial anonymity.

It was hard not to see it as a clash between Knox County's traditional undercover-of-night politicking and a new breed of dialogue. As Goss wrote a few days later, "I have this image of Mr. Van de Vate, with the sheriff looking over his shoulder of course, hidden deep in the dark and foul-smelling bowels of the sheriff's office cranking out copies of the infamous 'Notebooks' on the latest Guttenberg press. Meanwhile, up in the glorious sunlight, K2K is whizzing by at warp speed."

Today, Van de Vate is unrepentant but good-natured about the episode. After "monitoring" the conversation for several months, he officially subscribed a few weeks ago with his own email account, under the moniker EvilBinderGuy. Many of his posts to date have been sparring matches with Ashe.

Although Van de Vate has had some harsh words for K2K participants—particularly one who he says mistakenly phoned Van de Vate's father after the binder incident and harassed him—he professes admiration for the forum as a whole.

"Internet communication is still in its infancy," he says. "Discussion groups like K2K are particularly interesting because they essentially represent group conversation that has been concocted into some kind of primordial stew of electronic opinion. It is fun to watch the whole process evolve."


Who's Talking?

And evolve it has. While the justice center has been on hold, K2K discussions have ranged in mind-boggling ways. The Public Building Authority's proposals for new downtown development generated enormous volumes of opinion and contrarian viewpoints (despite Ashe's frequent efforts to point the conversation elsewhere). Likewise the Nine Counties One Vision effort. Everything from coping with the downtown homeless population to the city's denial of a beer permit for an Old City nightclub has produced heated discussion.

"You find that some people pick and choose," Terry says. "It's not that they're not concerned, but they focus their responses into one area of particular interest or, if they've done research, particular knowledge."

"But I think that's the strength of K2K," Dupree says. "If we were still talking about the justice center and nothing else, who would be participating? I doubt I would."

The membership has also expanded demographically, bringing in residents of North, East, West, and South Knox County, including professionals, students, retirees, and UT faculty members.

Dupree, however, notes that it's lacking in other kinds of diversity. He is one of the few African Americans on the subscriber list.

"I'm very disappointed in the scarcity of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and others on there," he says. "I don't know everybody on there, but of those that I do know, it's pretty much a white thing." He hopes to find ways to encourage more minority participation.

Patrick Hunt, a K2K subscriber and Web content manager for an online company, says access to the discussion is a problem.

"I think the big danger, sort of the logical conclusion, is the digital divide between the haves and have-nots," he says. "It's critical that that group not become exclusive of the have-nots."

And have-nots are still in the majority. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 1997, only 19 percent of American households had online access. The numbers vary predictably with income level and region—the West Coast has the highest concentration of online users, the Southeast and Midwest have the lowest. There is also a stark racial split; 21 percent of white households are online, compared to 8 percent of black households and 9 percent of Hispanics.

While most public libraries offer Internet access, it wouldn't be hard for a user to spend their rationed time (typically a half-hour) merely downloading and scanning through a day's worth of K2K posts, much less responding to them. The predicted availability of email via cable television would obviously open the door wider, but as Hunt notes, only about two-thirds of American households have cable.


Who's Listening?

One frequent contributor is a minority of a different sort. Wally McClure, a West Knoxville software developer, often seems like the devil's advocate of the forum. Where a majority of K2Kers tend to be "New Urbanist" advocates of downtown redevelopment and small-scale growth, McClure is more sympathetic to the prevailing model of decentralized development. When someone attacks the suburbs, McClure stands up for them. But he says he's found some common ground on the forum—and learned a few things, too.

"I'm pretty insulated," he says. "I deal with people in West Knoxville, and that's a relatively affluent area. It's good to understand what are the other issues that are occurring in other areas, what's going on downtown, what's the buzz."

In a recent discussion of homelessness and poverty, for example, he was impressed to see a post from a woman who had lived in a local shelter. "You would not have expected to have that kind of input," he says.

McClure wishes K2K or something like it could be harnessed to the Nine Counties One Vision meetings, which he also attended. He notes that in his Nine Counties discussion groups, most of the participants had at least heard of K2K, even if they weren't subscribers.

Gauging the forum's impact to date is difficult. Beyond the obvious example of the justice center, it's hard to point to concrete results of the energetic debates. Carlene Malone says she likes the concept, but she notes she hasn't seen any increased attendance at City Council meetings as a result.

On the other hand, the forum has clearly caught many well-placed ears. Besides Ashe and Van de Vate, Knox County schools spokesman Mike Cohen is a subscriber. Even Knox Chamber chief Tom Ingram has weighed in, albeit not online. In a Chamber newsletter a few months ago, Ingram wrote in appreciative detail about K2K, invoking a Bob Dylan song: "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

UT's Bill Lyons thinks so too. "I would think if you project a few years out in the future that people in politics would be expected to be involved in those sorts of things far more than they are now," he says. "It's something that's evolving. It's like the Wild West of communication. It'll probably take slightly different forms over time."

Maybe the most hands-on of local government participants has been Dale Smith, the new CEO of the Public Building Authority. Before he even came to Knoxville from Florida a few months ago, Smith heard about K2K and signed on.

"I was coming from way out of this area, trying to jump on a moving train in many respects," he says. PBA is overseeing the convention center and related private development, among other things. K2K introduced Smith to the ongoing debates surrounding the projects.

"I think that it has and will continue to have very, very powerful implications politically and in the sense of community building," he says. At the same time, he allows that it's hard to know how well opinions on K2K reflect those in the broader, more silent community.

Smith has written long, sometimes argumentative posts that have on occasion stirred controversy. (One memorable exchange between Smith and Robert Loest still sparks conversations.) He also used the "poll" feature of the eGroups site to conduct an informal survey about the future of Market Square, which irked some Square property owners who have been left out of the loop on PBA's development plans.

Smith himself acknowledges, "Email is a bit of a dangerous format, because it's immediate. Whatever you write, whenever you write it, you don't get a chance to reread it or think about it."

But he promises to stay involved, "Partly because it gives me a way to meet people. There's certain individuals I never would have met. ... I generally find value in it. And yet I find no more value in it than I would in a good dialogue with people at the Optimist Club in North Knoxville or whatever."


So where does K2K go from here? It's hard to know. Its feedback loops continue to get shorter and shorter. In one recent 24-hour period, discussion moved from one participant wondering why nobody ever plays chess on Market Square to multiple proposals for chess tournaments there to inquiries from the mayor's office about which local chess organizations might be interested in such an event. If it happens, it will be at least partly attributable to K2K.

Hunt, who works for Varsitybooks.com (which sells college textbooks online), says the forum and the medium itself are still in their novelty phase.

"It's still pretty cool to be able to post a message and get the kind of response you get and follow it through to its conclusion," he says. "That's still interesting. Pretty soon we'll take it for granted, but I don't think we do now."

For now, K2K's founders are content to let the dialogue go where it will. Now at 6,000 total posts and counting ("We've topped NASDAQ, now we're heading for the Dow," Goss quips), the group is among other things forging an archive of information and opinion on life in 21st century Knoxville—all of it available for review by anyone at any time. Some K2Kers are even incorporating it into their graduate studies at UT.

"Personally," Goss says, "we're in this for the long haul."


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