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Civil Debate Wall creates new kind of public forum


The five flat-screen panels that form The Civil Debate Wall flashed with orange and blue banners and the question “Is Occupy Wall Street the Civil Rights Movement of our time?”

Logan Clark, 21, paused to type his answer as he would on an oversized iPad. “Unlike the civil rights movement,” he typed, “I believe that the number of people that support the occupy movement cannot make a similar impression.”

“The Wall,” a series of interactive and interconnected touch-screen panels, poses questions regarding pressing public policy issues. The social media tool was developed at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida in an effort to create a platform for students to engage in civil debate about critical issues.

Clark, a mechanical engineering senior, was studying in Pugh Hall when he decided to answer the question. His response is now posted along with the responses of more than 100 other participants.

Clark said he’s never seen anything like The Wall. He felt that the chance to use the touch panels to enter responses and the five massive screens would get the attention of other students as well.

Sabin Ciocan, president of the Public Service Council, the student group behind creating and monitoring The Wall, said he felt its innovative look was one of its strong points.

“I think the student response will be, ‘Wow, this is a really cool thing’ as far as technology,” he said. “It’s been compared to the ‘Bourne Identity’ or the CNN Magic Screen.”

Another aspect in its favor is the large photographs attached to the comments. Everyone who answers the question in Pugh Hall will have a photo snapped through a high-powered digital camera.

“I think the biggest thing to get from The Wall is probably the fact that you get to communicate and actually see the person you’re debating with and actually put a face to it,” said Ciocan, a 21-year-old senior majoring in history and political science.

During testing, comments were more inflammatory when people could hide behind an anonymous username, he said. Having faces for the people engaged in the debate made it more personal.

Students in the Public Service Council monitor The Wall. They create the questions and police it for inappropriate use or comments. The questions they generate range from timeless questions such as whether citizens should vote to pertinent questions surrounding events and speakers coming to the Bob Graham Center, Ciocan said.

One such event, at 6 p.m. Jan. 20 in the Pugh Ocora, will be “The Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience,” hosted by PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West. They posed the current question regarding the Occupy Wall Street Movement and will lead a discussion on poverty in America and examine possible solutions.

The Wall officially launches from 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 25. The event includes a student party with free food and the chance to win Target and Starbucks gift cards.

Ciocan said he hopes students will visit The Wall, which also can be accessed through a mobile device, as regularly as “picking up the Alligator.”

Jensen Werley
Eric Zamora – UF Photography