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PdF '10: Clay Shirky Argues for Raising the Bar on Online Politics

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, June 15 2010

Clay Shirky, thinker, writer, and all around explainer of digital culture, gave a talk at PdF '10 that called into question the wisdom of conducting politics via email blast.

"If you talk to staffers on the Hill today, they will tell you that the predictive value of an individual email for voting patterns in their district is zero," argued Shirky. "It's nil -- it's not just a small number. It's been decoupled, in part because it's become so easy to send the messages, and in part because so many of the messages come from outside the district, by faking the zip code or what have you, that there's almost no way to rescue signal from that noise right now."

Shirky contended that somewhere during its maturation process thus far, online politics made some bad choices. "Digital activism has in large part trapped itself in the tragedy of the commons," he said, "where instead of producing signal for the representatives about strong feelings of their own constituents, we're now in a PR battle for which campaign has generated the most email." Shirky went on. "It's like the McDonald's model -- billions and billions of emails served."

Indeed, some folks working in online politics will quietly concede that some aspects of what they do have turned into a race for numbers, and yet one with little public accounting that can encourage the fluffing of performance.

Shirky, in his talk, proposed how online politics might produce more signal, less noise. Raise the cost of participating, he suggested, where cost can come in the form of the energy needed to take action. Design for groups, with the understanding that working as part of a group can be a marker of increased commitment on the part of an individual. Accept the fact that people are going to split into factions, and architect your online work to turn that into an asset. And finally, treat people who working inside government as correspondents, rather than as ripe targets for spam.

Give it a watch.

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