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How the White House Petition Site is Becoming a Digital Public Square

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, January 23 2013

Click throughs on the White House response to the "Death Star" petition

The chattering class is starting to make up its mind: The White House's "We the People" e-petition site isn't for serious people. "The White House Knows Its Petition Site Has Become Ridiculous," chortled New York Magazine a few days ago. "Just about any silly petition can make a cameo" on this site, wrote Politico's Patrick Gavin. "Your Stupid White House Petition Now Requires 100,000 Signatures," taunted the headline in BetaBeat, reporting on the newly raised threshold for getting an official response. Even the normally counter-cultural small-d democratic magazine Mother Jones took a dump on the project, highlighting a blind quote from a cranky staffer somewhere in the West Wing: "'My God, What Have We Done'? White House Staffers React to Insane Online Petitions" read MoJo's headline on its story.

"If you had told me a year and a half ago that the White House would be devoting time writing [an official statement] on how Lord Vader could fix our economic woes, I would have just laughed loudly at you," one White House staffer told Mother Jones. On Twitter, my old friend and colleague David Corn, Mother Jones' Washington editor, said to me, "It hardly strikes me as a good use of WH staffers time to respond to petitions for Death Stars and the like. Just take the crazy out!"

Well, consider this. The White House's response to the so-called "Death Star" petition, which got 34,435 signatures, led about 100,000 people to sign up to get regular emails from NASA letting them whenever the International Space Station is going to be passing overhead near where they live. That's because the response, which was emailed back to each Death Star signer and also posted and shared widely online, included a prominent reference to this nifty service, along with several other interesting initiatives. (Full disclosure: I'm already on the "Spot the Station" list and have been regularly thrilled to benefit from its updates.) Rather than wasting staffers' time, the Death Star petition gave the White House team a great, viral way to spread useful information about what the government is doing on the science frontier.

In fact, whenever someone signs a petition to the White House, they are explicitly giving the Administration permission to write them back. This is perhaps the most important and least-remarked upon aspect of the "We the People" platform. It's two-way. The 50,000 people who signed a petition calling on President Obama to be impeached all got a respectful response. So did the roughly 400,000 who signed petitions calling on various states to secede in the wake of Obama's re-election victory, and the 110,000 Alex Jones fans who signed a petition calling on the administration to deport CNN host Piers Morgan.

Is it likely that Jay Carney's résponse on the Piers Morgan brouhaha changed any minds? Perhaps not, but now those people have heard the administration's top spokesman stating explicitly that Obama believes the Second Amendment guarantees all individuals the right to bear arms. There's probably no other way he could have gotten that message to those people.

By the way, it isn't as if every question a reporter slings at a White House official is arguably the best use of that official's time. On January 17th, at the daily White House press briefing, a reporter wasted Jay Carney's time asking for details on how the President and First Lady were celebrating her birthday. Someone else wanted to know if the President had a view on the Manti Te’o affair. On January 9th, a reporter engaged Carney in a back-and-forth over Robert Griffin III's football injury. On the 8th, a reporter wanted to know what the President's position was on French actor Gerard Depardieu's decision to renounce his citizenship and become a Russian citizen to reduce his tax burden. And so on.

Most of the time, there is a huge disconnect between government and public. For years governments in the United States and Europe have been throwing money (away) at so-called e-government initiatives aimed at engaging the public, with the primary result of fattening lots of consultants' and designers' wallets. Most "e-government" platforms are relative ghost-towns. Meanwhile, as the Pew Center on the Internet & Public Life keeps reporting, the level of public discussion of politics online keeps rising--just not in places where it connects in any meaningful way with actual decision-makers.

The "We the People" site is an important and growing exception to that rule. Since Obama's re-election, use of it more than doubled, reports Macon Phillips, the White House new media director, who oversees the project. "In just that time roughly 2.4 million new users joined the system, 73,000 petitions were created and 4.9 million signatures were registered," he blogged a week ago. Since more petitions are being created and were crossing the 25,000 signature threshold more quickly as a result of this larger participant pool, the White House decided to raise the threshold again, to 100,000, he announced.

This, I think, is not an admission that the petition site is "ridiculous," "silly," "stupid" or "insane"--but proof that it is becoming a genuine digital public square capable of gathering the collective attention of millions of Americans. That's a rare thing, and as anyone who has tended any interactive online platform already knows, you have to tend your garden carefully as its starts to grow. Raising the threshold is one sensible way to ensure that more compelling topics get the lions share of White House's staffers' attention. Perhaps 100,000 is too high; we don't know. But we have to let government experiment with these tools if we want real innovation to happen.

And that new threshold doesn't mean petitions that fail to rise to that challenging level won't still gain public attention from appearing on the White House site, even if that is only for a day or two. Laurie David's petition asking for singer Beyonce to be disinvited from singing at the inauguration because of her $50 million sponsorship deal with Pepsi, maker of sugary fattening soft drinks, got booted off the site after one day because it wasn't germane (the White House argued that it didn't have jurisdiction over the work of the Presidential Inaugural Committee). But in a wonderful illustration of the "Streisand effect," the issue got a much wider airing as a result.

That said, as We the People continues to gain mindshare, the inner workings of the site will come under increasing scrutiny. Any hint that its administrators are treating some petitions differently than others--bouncing them off the site faster or slower, or responding quicker or slower--can undermine its credibility as a hub for civic engagement. A topic that would probably get addressed by a petition calling out the White House for breaking its own rules. We'll see.