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June 3, 2009

on the limits of online forums

The White House recently created a space where anyone could post "ideas and comments on how to make government more transparent, participatory and collaborative." More than 2,000 ideas were posted. I was happy to participate; my ideas are here.

The site is a gesture in favor of openness, deliberation, and interactivity. But the results so far are at least somewhat problematic. They underline the importance of deliberations or discussions in which the participants are representative of the whole population and there is some moderation.

The very top vote-getter was proposed by "republicanleaderjohnboehner." It is a "72-hour mandatory public review period on major spending bills." I do not know whether that is a good idea. The explanation seems a bit partisan: the main example of a "taxpayer-funded outrage" is "the empty 'Airport for No One' in the congressional district of Democratic Rep. John Murtha (D-PA)." (Note the double identification of Rep. Murtha as a Democrat--both before and after his name.) 1201 people voted for this idea, 187 against it.

The Republican House leader had a right to participate in this dialogue; arguably, it is a good innovation to create an open space where he would be able to weigh in. But without prejudice against Mr. Boehner's idea, I suspect that it got so many votes because someone activated an an online Republican network to support it.

The second-rated idea was to legalize marijuana, which seems unrelated to the purpose of the site and must also reflect the activation of a network or a mailing list. It could indeed turn out that the number of votes was proportional to the size of one's network. (I used my blog and facebook page and got a total of 139 favorable votes.)

There were many cranky "proposals." For instance, 53 voted for, and 10 against, a proposal headed, "Obama may be Kenyan. His father is Kenyan. Obama is not natural born! Release [birth certificate]." My proposal to engage young Americans got comments like this one: "Stop spending money on racist preemtive genocidal wars. We need education not war." Whoever wrote this comment had a right to express himself. I disagree that the current US wars are "genocidal," but I'm not on the opposite side from this person. I would question whether (a) the comment was germane and relevant, and (b) whether a dialogue in which such views are prevalent can possibly influence national policy.

The important next step of the White House process is a "discussion phase." It will be very interesting to see how this works.

June 3, 2009 2:09 PM | category: deliberation | Comments


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