With the advent of the Internet various governments started to experiment with online discussions in which citizens could express their ideas and opinions. The official statistics in the Netherlands on this topic give the impression that the use of this form of Internet participation has been growing ever since, and that more and more governments are attracted to this form of political communication. An empirical investigation of four examples at the local level shows that these online discussions are now functioning with some success. Online discussion forums typically contain numerous contributions by citizens, and they seem to comply with the requirements which have been formulated for open discussions in the public sphere. In the majority of the cases there is evidence of participants who address serious issues, who are sincere and open to others and who discuss on the bases of arguments, while maintaining a reasonable level of respect for other participants. Further analysis, however, shows that these online discussions have little impact on the formal political process and also that the quality of the discussions themselves tends to deteriorate over time. Thus, in the end, the real promises of this democratic innovation seem rather bleak.
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