When we started the Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker project, we believed what local people involved in this effort told us — that they’d be happy to contribute to this public conversation, speak up with their ideas and observations.

Since we’re dealing with a fairly niche topic mainly involving local government in a small city, we were relying on some initiative from people involved in what the city is doing with the carbon tax money. The kind of engagement we envisioned was people speaking up, having a public conversation. But when it came down to it, most of the people “in the know” about Boulder’s carbon tax weren’t actually comfortable with taking that step.

Part of the problem is that the people most knowledgeable about this issue, while willing to have face-to-face private or group conversations about the matter, were reluctant to share their thoughts online in a persistent, findable way. That’s because most of them have various overlapping commitments and concerns (business, political, social, etc.) that cause them concern when they can’t directly control who hears which part of what they have to say. So far, we haven’t found a good way to get around that barrier.

While dealing with this frustrating challenge, another intriguing issue arose: Most of these people expressed comfort with being interviewed, even though they are reluctant to speak up directly. We were puzzled by this.

For a long time Adam Glenn and I resisted doing interviews. After all, the point of our project was to engage the community in conversation. Resorting to interviews felt too much like traditional journalism. But now, as our project is nearing its end and we haven’t yet gotten much traction in this community, we’ve realized that our last option is to mediate the discussion in a conventional journalistic way.

So now we’re going to try yielding to that preference, by doing video interviews. We’re starting to work with three people from the University of Colorado journalism school to interview some of the key people on this issue. We’re just ramping up on that phase of the project, and we’ll see how it goes.

Why video? We think that video will provide the most direct experience of how people express themselves, and therefore be least like traditional journalism and at least somewhat approximate a conversation.

The psychology and politics of speaking up of your own volition v. getting interviewed is pretty interesting, too.

When you are chosen to be interviewed, it can appear to enhance your importance: Someone thought you were interesting or important enough to ask.

In this audio clip from a recent IT Conversations podcast, Jon Udell interviews Dan Bricklin, president of Software Garden, on audio production. About 40 minutes into it, their conversation turned to how people perceive being sought for an interview or photo as a sign of respect:

Listen to the clip now

In contrast, simply speaking up on your own initiative can appear pushy, vain, or desperate. Consider how, in the book world, self-published books are still commonly stigmatized as “vanity press,” regardless of quality. That’s changing slowly for some publishing markets and genres, but that stigma is hard to fight in all kinds of media.

Furthermore, being chosen to be interviewed can appear to mitigate your personal responsibility for what you say. Answering a question about a touchy subject can be far more politically palatable than choosing to raise the subject of your own volition.

Finally, many people are still uncomfortable with the idea of circumventing the social authority of mainstream news organizations. This is especially true of government officials and public employees, but it’s also true of scientists, businesspeople, and others who rely heavily on authority for making decisions, statements, and deals.

Authority sometimes gets a bad rap in American society. It’s very human and natural to seek authority, in order to control your personal cognitive burden (decisions, research, etc.), and to feel the security of belonging to a community bound by shared values. If we could never defer to authority, figuring out what to believe and do would be and endless daily chore, fraught with personal responsibility and risk at every turn. It’s simply too much work to make up your own mind about everything in today’s world.

The human social tendency to seek authority also discourages many people from speaking up directly via nontraditional or non-mainstream media — especially on topics that involve their work or professional life. Doing so feels a little bit like you’re going to sit at the “geek” table in the high school lunchroom. What will people think if you start hanging out with that crowd? Could it damage your own perceived status?

Lesson learned: For community projects that depend on participation from experienced professionals discussing their work and opinions, starting an open public conversation is probably going to be very, very, hard.

In particular, posing public questions to these people questions and hoping they will respond publicly in kind is likely to fail, because they may feel cornered and defensive.

For most professionals, government officials, and public employees, it may be better to work with their ingrained preference for the hierarchy of media: Contacting them for a private interview, asking them questions, and then presenting an edited version of the answers. Later, some of them may be willing to speak up more. But almost all of them probably will be strongly averse to starting by speaking up themselves.

At least, that’s been our experience so far. Stay tuned to see how the video interviews go.