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Emergent Governance: Who Needs Bees When the Grassroots Swarm the White House

BY Alan Rosenblatt | Wednesday, November 5 2008

As we transition from the presidential campaign to an Obama administration, the looming question is, "What will become of all those people networked via My.BarackObama.com (MyBO) and Obama's massive email list?" Is there a place in government for the swarming grassroots masses? And can we capitalize on its collective intelligence in order to make its contribution meaningful?

I see two non-mutually exclusive tracks Obama can take. Track one is to keep MyBO alive as a political community outside of government. Track two is to turn Obama's massive grassroots community into a vehicle for a more transparent and connected democracy.

Regardless of how Obama pursues using these new technologies in the coming years, there will be technological and legal challenges to overcome. The laws separating the two domains and the technological challenges of bringing federal government systems up to date will shape how social networking technology gets incorporated into the mix. And in addition to the challenges of bringing the social network inside, there will also be the challenge of making government more transparent. In an ideal world, the government will provide an easy to use interface for citizens to access government data and an open access to the raw data so others can use them in other ways.

Track one: keep the community alive
For years, I have advocated that elected officials should keep their campaign website going in between elections. Doing so would allow them to call on their political supporters to help promote the officials’ legislative and regulatory initiatives. For Obama, this means he could mobilize millions to write Congress, send letters to editors around the country, comment on blogs, and a host of other grassroots activism activities. Additionally, keeping the community alive means it will grow and be vibrant when it is time to run for re-election.

Beyond keeping MyBO alive, Obama is also sitting on top of an extraordinary network of supporters on several social media websites, including MySpace, Facebook, BlackPlanet, MiGente, Eons, Asian Ave, Eventful, Twitter, Digg, Flickr, YouTube, MyBatanga, Glee, FaithBase, LinkedIn, and DNC Partybuilder. Throw in other emerging advocacy-oriented social networks like the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s IAmProgress.org and AARP’s online community, and the potential for cultivating a dynamic and powerful grassroots advocacy base to enhance MyBo and spread the progressive message is enormous.

Track two: transparent and connected democracy
This track is a little trickier, but no less important. By creating an official White House social network that invites all voters in and opens the doors to the governing process, Obama has the opportunity to reinvigorate Edmund Burke's delegate model of representative government. Instead of guessing from Washington what the people want, such a platform can more accurately reveal the public will and make it easier for government to reflect that will.

For years we have talked about how Washington is disconnected from Main Street. With these new technologies and the millions already connected through them, that disconnect can be put to rest. But the challenge of making sense of millions of people clamoring to be heard is huge.

One approach to raising the quality of the public voice is to integrate collaboration tools into the social network platform. Rather than letting individuals each offer their selection, which would create an email overload that dwarfs what Congress faces, the network can be organized into affinity groups and given tools that allow them to build collaborative documents that are supported by more consensus or the approximation of consensus. These affinity groups may be geographically based, issue based, demographically based, or based on any meaningful group of people with a shared interest. Each group can work together, if provided the right tools, to create a coherent policy recommendation to pass up the line.

One tool recently launched to help these matters is MixedInk. MixedInk combines the well-established wiki collaboration approach—most commonly recognized on Wikipedia—with a social ranking system similar to Digg. MixedInk also allows users to borrow language written by other collaborators and integrate it into their own document. The approach is really quite ingenious. As a user starts typing, the software pops up in a side window similar text from other users. To use that text instead of your own, just click on it and it moves over to your document. The assembled document makes it easy to figure out who wrote it—each piece of text is tagged with the name of the original author—and the document as a whole (and in parts) can be voted on by other users.

Emergent governance
The notion of emergence, where intelligence is manifested from a collection of minds, is a core concept in chaos theory and the underlying principle in James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. Scientists have long noted that, on average, the assessments of a crowd are more likely to be correct than the proclamations of an individual expert. From Elisabeth Noelle Neuman's work on predicting election outcomes (The Spiral of Silence), to the central limit theorem that underlies statistical sampling methodology, the emergence of intelligence from large groups has been well established.

The exciting opportunities for governance presented by social networking and collaboration technologies are palpable. The election of a president who understands this potential portents a new golden age for democracy. Perhaps.