In Internet Democracy Not All Good Causes Are Apparently Equal
By Donald Schwartz
February 1, 2009
The view that the Internet provides a level playing field of opportunity for everyone to influence government policy was not universally accepted by those in attendance at NYSIA’s January monthly meeting which examined the effect of Internet technology on politics and policy.
The vox popular voting strategy that brings topics of discussion to public attention on websites such as Ground Report, and to a lesser extent Change.org, was questioned by some in the audience. While voting may be democratic, there are drawbacks: topics with a more limited audience can be neglected or overlooked either because the audience for those topics was small in number, lacked understanding of how the tools worked and/or didn’t know what must be done to get attention.
Got a cause to promote? You’ve got to know your limitations, the work-arounds, and where the best venues are.
Improving the Vox Pop System
Josh Levy, panelist and managing editor of Change.org, the social action blog network, felt that just because your topic didn’t achieve sufficient votes to bring your issue to the forefront that didn’t mean the issue wasn’t worthy of action. For example, in an interview with Levy, he said that Stop the Genocide in Darfur did not make it into the top 10 and placed only 17th even though there was a concerted effort by a number of anti-genocide advocacy groups.
Levy said that Change.org was motivated to alter their approach to topic listings by John Pincus, a sometime constructive critic of Change.org who critiqued the project early on. Pincus, Levy said, suggested that Change.org should find a method to present not only the most popular ideas on the site, but show and encourage a diversity of submissions.
Change.org’s current method showcases causes that are on the rise and gaining in popularity, Change also provides a random selection of topics culled from existing posts. Rounding out their offerings are bloggers representing a further diversity of opinions.
Rachel Stern, panelist and founder of the Ground Report, a democratic news platform, acknowledged that their video news platform was based on the rule of the majority. Stern said that although your video may not make it to the top on Ground Report, it would most likely be presented somewhere.
Michael Sifry, panelist and Executive Editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, said that we are in "the age of mass participation politics" and pointed out that the system is "not fair" and is "gamed all the time."
Sifry, asked to elaborate on his view of Internet realpolitik, said: "People approach the notion of online participation from some place that doesn’t exist; where everybody is equal and there are no advantages that one speaker has over another." Citing a number of examples, Sifry pointed out that in addition to money availability disparities, "not everybody has access to the Internet with a fast broadband connection nor has the luxury of time to engage in online politicking."
Playing The Game – Improving Your Chances of Getting Attention
Sifry sees a possible workaround enabling a minority view to gain attention: link to a specific question. "But there is a choice," Sifry said in a follow up interview. "If you make it easy to link to a question, you encourage more participation, but may also make it easier for gaming. If you make it hard to link to a question, then the early birds are going to get more attention on the home page; get more votes because they got there first. So your design has to address that by inducing some level of randomness."
It’s About Your Network
Tom Watson, CauseWire managing partner, underscored the importance of exploiting your own network of like-minded people. In a follow-up interview, Watson described a classic community organizing model: you have to organize people and then get them to get their friends to get their friends to do the same.
Watson pointed out that people with a cause to promote can use Facebook which, while it does rank cause popularity, does not use a tote board.
Strategies for Getting Attention Remain the Same: Only The Scope of the Network Has Changed
In an interview, Howard Greenstein, President of the Harbrooke Group, the evening’s moderator, compared today’s political cause attention-getting methods on the Internet with his experience as a Democratic Committeeman in 1992. Candidate canvassing was door-to-door. In lieu of a Facebook page, his neighborhood of friends was his huge Eastside apartment building. Greenstein’s end-game was to get people interested enough to hear the candidate’s message in his apartment. His means of attracting attention and getting people organized around the candidate’s message is the same today: identify the audience, target the message making sure it’s relevant and get people to vote, post and/or blog.